Envisioning Emmanuel

Introduction. The Eastern Church doesn’t really have the liturgical season of Advent. We do have a fast period as part of our preparation for the Nativity that extends from November 15/28 through December 24/January 6. We only have two, preparatory

Sundays. Our liturgical preparation begins in earnest only on December 20/January 2, with the Forefeast of the Nativity. It is only from December 20 through December 24, that the Eastern Church uses the language of expectation characteristic in the West. For example, at Vespers on December 20 we hear:

O ye people, and raising our thoughts on high let us go in spirit to Bethlehem; and with the eyes of our mind let us gaze upon the Virgin, as she hastens to give birth unto our God, the Lord of all.

To help sketch out how the Orthodox Church envisions what it means to say “Emmanuel” that “God is with us,” I want to look with you at the icons and hymnography of four feasts—the Annunciation, the Nativity, the Presentation of Our Lord in the Temple and Theophany. Taken together these are meant to fix our hearts on that “great mystery in a cave” that “opened once again … [the] gates, O Eden” and granted “the world great mercy.”

Feast of the Annunciation Liturgically as well as in our icons, the Orthodox Church’s envisioning Emmanuel beings 9 months before Christmas on the Feast of Annunciation when. It is at this moment when, as we hear at Vespers, our salvation is accomplished. And as the hymnography makes clear, it isn’t simply humanity’s salvation or even the Virgin’s salvation that is accomplished but my personal salvation as well:

Behold, our restoration hath now been revealed to us! God unites Himself to me, in a manner past all telling! Delusion is dispelled by the voice of the archangel! For the Virgin receiveth joy, an earthly woman hath become heaven! The world is released from the primal curse! Let creation rejoice and chant aloud: O Lord, our Creator and Redeemer, glory be to Thee!

In His conception, Emmanual is not simply God With Us but God With Me (and You as well). The fact that we were born and live some 20 centuries later doesn’t change the fact that in becoming Man the Son has united Himself to every person and is so doing salvation is accomplished for all even if it is still to be appropriated by each. The reason for this is because what we suffer from Adam forwards is not immorality but a separation from God.

Turning to the icon, we see that humanity’s salvation is not accomplished without our cooperation. Based on the events recorded for us Luke (1:26-38), the angel announces to the Virgin her role in salvation history; respectful of the necessity of her free ascent, he then waits patient for her fait. The hymnography for the feast shows the Virgin to be a full participant in this process. Taking on the role of a prosecuting attorney, she interrogates Gabriel to avoid, as she says, the mistake “My first mother” who in “accepting the serpent’s knowledge, was driven away from divine sustenance.”

The coming of Emmanuel then is not only a monument of divine grace but one which brings into sharp focus human freedom revealing to us both God and ourselves.

Feast of the Nativity. The eucharistic theology of the Annunciation, of communion restored and offered, is also a theology of divine illumination. Just as by His Incarnation the Son has united Himself to each human person, by His birth He illumines not only the human heart but all creation. As sing on Christmas day

Thy Nativity, O Christ our God, * hath shined the light of knowledge upon the world; * for thereby, they that worshipped the stars * were instructed by a star * to worship Thee, the Sun of Righteousness, * and to know Thee, the Dayspring from on high. ** O Lord, glory be to Thee.

Turning to the icon, we discover that salvation embraces not only the human person and human society but the material world. Again, from the hymn on Christmas day:

Today the Virgin giveth birth to Him Who is transcendent in essence; * and the earth offereth a cave to Him Who is unapproachable. * Angels with shepherds give glory; * the Magi journey with a star; ** for our sake a young Child is born, Who is the pre-eternal God.

Hear in the hymnography and see in the icon not only the Christ Child and the Virgin but also the other human, angelic, animal and material actors in salvation. All have their role to play in healing the broken communion between God and humanity.

However, not everything we see under the warmth of the divine light is pleasant. I want to draw your attention particularly to St Joseph. We know from St Luke that he was not only a “just man” but a kind man who did not want to shame Mary by making here “a public example” (Matthew 1:19). For this reason, he struggles with his role in the incarnation; Joseph must think through what recent events mean. This is important because it makes clear that the Son comes not simply to redeem the soul or even the soul and body but all the faculties of the human person.

Reflecting on the salvation of the whole person, leads St Maximus the Confessor in the 7th century to affirm that because sin has damaged our intellect, even understanding the empirical character of creation requires divine grace and illumination to say nothing of the cultivation of the intellectual and moral virtues.

Feast of the Presentation. The highly stylized representation of animals and the natural world in icons, reflect a soteriological vision that extends not only to the human person but to the whole creation—animate and inanimate. All are redeemed, all are illumined, because in His Incarnation the Son has fulfilled the primordial but failed vocation of the First Adam.

    As for us, created as we are in the image the God Who is Himself free from any necessity, from any external constraint, the coming of the Son of God requires our free, personal response. What is implicit at the Annunciation is made explicit at the feast of the Presentation.

We are called to make our own, personal ascent to Jesus Christ. We are called, as we hear in the hymnography for the feast, to “receive Him Whom Symeon perceive[s] as our salvation.” Salvation, in other words, is an invitation extended to all and to which we must freely and personally respond.

The personal character of salvation means that not only has Christ fulfilled the Law but, as St Justin Martyr will say in the 2nd century, all human knowledge and virtue as well. God has prepared not only the Jews but also the Gentiles for His incarnation. And both the Jew and the Gentile are called to imitate Symeon and receive Him Who is “the fulfillment of the promise” not only of the Law and Philosophy but also of each human heart.

Feast of Theophany. What the West celebrates as the Baptism of our Lord, the East celebrates as the Feast of the Theophany. As with Nativity, historical events are only one part of a broader theological conversation embodied in the Church’s art and worship. As the Greek Orthodox theologian Christos Yannaras puts it “The ontological content of the eucharist– eucharistic communion as a mode of existence– assumes that the communal reality of life has a cosmological dimension: it presupposes matter and the use of matter, which is to say art, as the creative transformation of matter into a fact of relationship and communion.”

    Yannaras’ point here reflects Orthodox soteriology. Salvation is not merely a forensic affirmation of righteousness in Christ but, in the words of the Apostle Peter, a “sharing in the divine nature” (see 1 Peter 1:4) or in Greek theosis and in English deification.

    The God in Whose nature we share is of course Himself a community of Three Persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The creative transformation of matter into an event of communion is an extension of what we’ve seen so far. Having transformed human life and all of creation from within, Jesus Christ invites us to do likewise.

    The pattern of this transformation is the Holy Trinity. This is why I would like to end my discussion with the icon of Theophany. It is at Theophany, at Christ’s baptism in the Jordan by John (Matthew 3:13) “that the worship of the Holy Trinity is revealed.” In the icon for the feast, we see both the Son and the Holy Spirit the Father’s “finger, crying out and point from heaven, openly declared and proclaimed to all that the one then being baptized by John in the Jordan was His beloved Son, while at the same time manifesting His unity with Him.”

    In the theology and iconography of the Orthodox Church to say that God is With Us, is to profess our faith in the Holy Trinity. It is also to remind ourselves of the evangelical mission of the Church to “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15). Last of all, it an affirmation and acceptance of the depth and breadth of human freedom.

Defending Religious Liberty

One of the reasons conservative Christians voted for Donald Trump is because of the hope (since vindicated) that he would reverse Obama administration policies that required either that faith-based groups to either leave Public Square or remain but at the cost of compromising their commitment to their own moral traditions.

On Thursday, the White House announced a new rule that will help faith-based organizations remain a vital part of the child-welfare system. The Obama-era provisions redefined federal nondiscrimination policies in a way that excluded faith-based groups. The new rule brings regulations at the Department of Health and Human Services back in line with all other federal nondiscrimination law and Supreme Court precedent.

It’s worth noting, that this unwelcome choice was limited wholly to matters of human sexuality. In effect, the Obama administration said to faith-based groups, agree with us about contraception, abortion, and homosexuality or abandon your ministry.

Besides being unconstitutional, these policies were intrinsically unjust seeking as they did to undermine faith-based communities. A Catholic school, for example, that employed an openly homosexual teacher does so at the expense of their Church’s teaching on the nature of marriage. Likewise with an Evangelical Christian, Jewish or Muslim social service agency that is required to place children with same-sex couples.

When faced with an aggressively secular that seeks to use the government to undermine a community’s religious faith and practice, is ti any wonder that that conservative Christians turned out in large numbers for Trump?

If Democrats, and especially progressive Demoncrats, are serious about taking the White Hise and flipping the Senate, they will need to adopt policies that protect not only the rights of sexual minorities but also conservative Christian, Jews, and Muslims.

For Orthodox Christians, the absence of such policies–and especially the commitment to continue and expand the anti-religious liberty policies of the Obama administration–makes voting for Democratic candidates morally problematic for two reasons.

First, these policies seek to compel believers to agree with policies that they find morally unacceptable. Second, in doing so these policies actively undermine the witness of a community not only in the Public Square but also within its own precincts.

There has been much written about the hypocrisy of evangelical Christ support for President Trump. And most of it, I think, is correct.

However, what remains unexamined by these same critics is the way in which Democrats have created this situation. Without a credible alternative that protects their religious liberty, it is not surprising that conservative religious believers continue to support the Trump administration.

Politics is always a trade-off. There is rarely if ever, a policy or politician wholly in agreement with the Gospel. When the alternative placed before conservative religious voters is a seriously, almost comically, morally flawed candidate who protects their liberty and an equally, if differently morally flawed candidate who pursues policies that risk that liberty, one ought not to be surprised that they vote for the former.

Criticisms of this choice demonstrate either an appalling lack of empathy for one’s fellow citizens or an attempt to shame conservative believers to no longer pursue their own, morally legitimate, self-interest. Neither is in the service of a free and just society.

How Far Is Too Far?

Where I wonder, is the point when, just maybe, it might be advisable for the POTUS to stop trolling world leaders like a kid living in his parents’ basement?

The only way we keep liberty from degenerating into license is though the cultivation of virtue. But without self-restraint, without a sense of the dignity of one’s office, there can be no virtue.

What inspires these thoughts is a recent tweet from POTUS.

When Helping Hurts

I generally avoid partisan issues where the Church has definitively spoken. But as the pastor of a church on the Isthmus in Madison an area with a significant homeless population, I thought this editoral was a good warning for Mad City. San Francisco,

…has been conducting a three-decade experiment in what happens when society stops enforcing bourgeois norms of behavior. It has done so in the name of compassion for the homeless. The result: Street squalor and misery have increased, while government expenditures have ballooned. Yet the principles guiding city policy remain inviolate: Homelessness is a housing problem, it is involuntary, and it persists because of inadequate public spending. These propositions are readily disproved by talking to people living on the streets.

Both in American political philosophy and Orthodox moral theology, liberty isn’t moral license and the civil authority has a positive obligation to protect the public order.

Here in Madison, the city government has largely failed in its obligations. Like San Franciso, the mayor sees homelessness as a housing problem. While this is partly true, there are also often underlying mental health issues that lead to homelessness.

While the cause or causes of homelessness matter, so to do its consequences for public safety. As crime increases on the Isthmus (basically, downtown) becomes a more dangerous place to live and work. Failure to address the resulting increase in crime is a moral failure on the part of the city government.

In both San Francisco, one underlying cause of government inaction is the widespread embrace of liberty as moral license rather than as the freedom to do as we ought to do. As we see in other areas, often members of the middle and upper-middle classes, preach values they don’t actually embrace in their own lives.

Ironically, and tragically, “helping” the homeless is, again as we see in other areas, is doing more harm than good. Worse, it is actively harming the very people government officials are seeking to help.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Attack on Religious Liberty

I’ve linked below to proposed Wisconsin Senate bill 382. If it were to become law, it would eliminate “from the reporting requirement the exception for information obtained through confidential communications.”


Current law provides that a member of the clergy is not required to report information relating to suspected or threatened sexual abuse of a child that he or she receives solely through confidential communications made to him or her privately or in a confessional setting if he or she is authorized to hear or is accustomed to hearing such communications and if, under the disciplines, tenets, or traditions of his or her religion, he or she has a duty or is expected to keep those communications secret. The bill eliminates from the reporting requirement the exception for information obtained through confidential communications.

However well-intentioned, this is an unjust infringement on religious liberty and represents an attack on the life of the Church. I would encourage all Wisconsin residents to contact their state legislators and the bills co-sponsors to protest this violation of both the US and Wisconsin constitutions. The bills’ co-sponsors can be found in the attached document.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Source: Wisconsin Legislature: SB382: Bill Text

The Key is Freedom

I haven’t seen Arthur Brooks’ documentary on the free market (The Pursuit) but I have followed his work at AEI and am currently reading (and enjoying) his new book Love Your Enemies. I have some traveling to do in this next month. Hopefully, that will give me time to see Brooks’ documentary.Image result for braveheart freedom

The takeaway for me from the review at Bleeding Heart Libertarian (see below) is the connection between human flourishing and not only economic freedom but moral freedom (virtue).

If we care for the poor, if we care for our communities, if we care for our families, children, and students, then we will defend freedom. This means having a fuller notion of freedom that just the absence of external constraints.

It also means the freedom that comes from a life of virtue of those habits of thought and action that make it possible for me to love my enemy and to forgive those who have wronged me.

Above all, freedom in this fuller sense means cultivating the virtues that help me focus not simply on what’s best for me but best for my neighbor. I wish to become a morally better person and a more productive member of society not only because this is good for me. It’s good for you as well when your neighbor is virtuous and working to make the world a better place economically, politically, culturally, and yes, morally.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Source: The Pursuit: Arthur Brooks on Capitalism, Dignity, and Opportunity for All

Enrich the Poor & Save the Planet

At National Review, Michael Brendan Dougherty writes that

…one impulse in lifestyle environmentalism is to make more basic modern commodities and goods more expensive — more like luxury goods. That way fewer of them will be produced. The externalization of costs onto the future will be disrupted by being priced in, somehow. The Prince Williams [sic] and Pete Buttigiegs of the world will likely not have to reduce their consumption. New, sin-style taxes on unclean energy and more stringent regulation of beef will be navigated rather easily by the rich. They can afford to be ‘minimalist’ and buy experiences, can’t they? Meanwhile these same measures drive the less fortunate to look for yellow vests, pitchforks, or at least the nearest populist running for office.

The ascetical impulse is, he writes, “is hard-wired in our culture.” He goes on to say that,

The West is built on the idea that human sin brought death into the world, and that it still does. We know greed is a sin. Modern abundance can be a source of dysfunction — think hoarders — and shame. America’s high-income earners are drowning in cardboard boxes from online shopping. And there is a certain plausibility to the notion that this abundance is unprecedented and its true costs will be borne by the environment or posterity itself. Most of us vaguely suspect that a little self-denial heals not just the individual soul, but the world around us.

Asceticism is hardwired into Western culture because our culture is fundamentally (if increasingly less so) Christian.

For the Scriptures and the fathers of the Church, asceticism is not an anthropological afterthought. For example, far from being a response–or what is worse, a punishment–together with procreation and labor (Genesis 1:28), fasting is part of humanity’s original vocation (2:16-17).

Marketers–economic and political–Dougherty have of late taken to exploit our ascetical inclinations. They do so not to foster human flourish or Christian holiness but for material gain and votes. They are able to do this because they “understand this desire and how poorly thought out” is our understanding of asceticism.

While “it’s quite true that thoughtlessness has costs,” the secular ascetical solutions to environmental challenges are as thoughtless as littering. It is, he says “a myth that plastic straws are a serious environmental problem, or that paper ones are a very good solution.” More importantly, “There are far better ways of reducing the amount of waste, pollution, and plastic that goes into the ocean.”

But it is morally thoughtless and politically dangerous, to tell “those less fortunate than you that the great advancements of food production, air-conditioning, and air travel will have to be withdrawn from them for their own good.”

Yes, doing so “may provide a momentary thrill for our modern-day preachers of simplicity but it is, itself, thoughtless. Fewer children, less protein for them, more deaths from heat exhaustion, and less travel isn’t a morally superior future; it’s just a parsimonious and more impoverished one.”

In fact, it is vicious and Christians and others of goodwill who care for the neighbor, Related imageespecially those mired in poverty and suffering under tyrannical regimes, must challenge the Prince Harrys and Megan Markels and the Pete Buttigiegs and Sir Elton Johns of the world to rethink policies that protect their lifestyles at the expense of the poor.

Want to save the planet? Then enrich the poor.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Wisconsin Democrats want to hear your confession | Acton Institute

At Acton Commentary I discuss what I see as the problem with a bill proposed by the Democrats in the state legislator. The bill would require clergy to report any cases of child sexual abuse even if we learn about this in confession.

As I point out in the article:

As an Orthodox priest, I cannot accept any attempt by the state to re-define for its own purposes the nature of the sacrament of confession.

Bad as this is if this becomes law it will have the effect of punishing the innocent in “pursuit of the guilty.”

Finally, the proposed bill is on its face unconstitutional. The State has no right–no matter how noble the aim–to interfere in the sacramental ministry of the Church.

You can read the whole essay here: Wisconsin Democrats want to hear your confession | Acton Institute

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Exposing Ideological Conceits

Few discoveries are more irritating than those which expose the pedigree of ideas. Sharp definitions and unsparing analysis would displace the veil beneath which society dissembles its divisions, would make political disputes too violent for compromise and political alliances too precarious for use, and would embitter politics with all the passions of social and religious strife.

Lord Acton, Essay on Liberty, p. 62 quoted in , p. 346

In the summary of John Marini’s, Unmasking the Administrative State: The Crisis of American Politics in the Twenty-First Century we are told that

The election of Donald J. Trump to the presidency shocked the political establishment, triggering a wave of hysteria among the bicoastal elite that may never subside. The biggest shockwaves of all, however, were felt not in the progressive parishes of Manhattan or San Francisco, but in the halls of the political elite’s cherished and oft-overlooked center of power—Washington, DC’s sprawling “administrative state”—for President Trump represented an existential threat to its denizens, who came to be known as “swamp creatures.”

Reading this on my Facebook page a friend responded that “Trump has left most of the administrative positions VACANT. Basic abuse and neglect of the administration is what he’s doing. Some genius ‘unmasking’ that is.”

While it is true that many of the administrative positions in the Trump White House are still vacant, this isn’t why Marini says that the election and subsequent administration of Donald Trump have triggered the reaction it has.

Yes, many administrative positions remain empty and yet, the Republic still stands, the economy is growing and the country as a whole seems to be chugging along. It seems that whatever else might be said for good or ill for President Trump, his administration at least raises the question that Marini explores in his book that rule by experts is over-rated.

There is no question that President Trump (who I didn’t vote for) is a divisive personality–but he also owns this about himself. And by his own admission, he is not a morally upright man. He brags about cutting “good deals” in business, is an unapologetic self-promoter and takes a great deal of pride in his sexual promiscuity.

Nevertheless, the Republic endures. When Marini says the Trump presidency has “unmasked” the pretensions of the administration, he is not saying that Trump is a good man. Nor is he saying that Trump has only lifted the veil on the ideas of the Left.

Trump’s presidency (rather than simply Trump himself) not only calls into question the (progressive) commitment to rule by experts, it also casts doubt on the (conservative) notion of rule by the virtuous. Neither expertise nor virtue is evidently what effective government requires.

Or maybe more accurately, both conservatives and progressives have flawed notions of virtue and expertise.

Both ideologies I think are too narrow and fail to take into account the complexities of governance. If we are not (as the right says) electing a Pastor-in-Chief, neither are we electing a Professor-in-Chief.

This isn’t to disparage either pastors or professors (and I am both) but to highlight that for too long we have sought to find in the president and other elected officials a reflection of our own, idealized self-image. Trump hasn’t just pulled back the curtain on only progressive conceits. He’s done the same for conservatives.

Finally, none of this suggests that (a) he is a morally good man or (b) that he did this intentionally. But did it he has I think.

As I was finishing this post, a priest friend sent me a quote from Malcolm Muggeridge that speaks to the underlying discomfort of both Christians on the Left and the Right have with not just the Trump administration but the Obama administration as well. Muggeridge writes:

I’m saying that contrary to what has been the practice and indeed dynamic of the church in the past century, that to identify Christian hopes with an earthly cause – however ostensibly noble – is disastrous, because all earthly causes end in total disappointment.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Black balloons for the lost orphans 

My article about the Hogar Rafael Ayu and Holy Trinity Orthodox Monastery in Guatemala was just published by the Acton Institute. Here’s the first paragraph:

The protesters were mostly high school and university students. They carried black balloons, dozens of them – one for each teenaged orphaned girl who died while in police custody in a March 2017 schoolroom fire. Walking in solidarity with the hundreds of other protesters down Guatemala City’s 6A Calle was a small group of Serbian Orthodox Christian nuns. The abbess of the monastery, Madre Inés, told me that she and the nuns of Holy Trinity Orthodox Monastery in Villa Nueva, Guatemala came to the crowded Cons

You can read the rest here: Black balloons for the lost orphans | Acton Institute

Carpentry students at the Municipality Workshop School. Photo by Melanie Dent

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